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#ChooseToChallenge: The First Female Medical Graduate from Dalhousie
March 8th marks International Women's Day, a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The national theme for International Women’s Day 2021 is #ChooseToChallenge.
A challenged world is an alert world. Individually, we're all responsible for our own thoughts and actions - all day, every day. We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. We can all choose to seek out and celebrate women's achievements. Collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world. Dr. Annie Hamilton embodied the spirit of this year’s theme - from challenge comes change.
In 1881, at a time when most medical schools in the world were refusing entry to women, Dalhousie Medical School’s leaders spontaneously voted to encourage women to pursue careers in medicine—even though no women had as yet applied to the school.
The first woman to embrace this opportunity was Annie Hamilton, born in 1866 on a farm near the village of Brookfield in Colchester County, Nova Scotia.
Annie applied to Dalhousie Medical School in 1888 (known as Halifax Medical College at the time), seven years after the historic decision to welcome women. She had already obtained a teacher’s license from the Truro Normal School, then attended Pictou Academy, graduating as gold medalist in 1884. A determined young woman, she then worked as a teacher for several years to save enough money for medical school.
It must have been a terrible shock when, partway through first year, both of her parents died, just two weeks apart. But Annie kept going until the end of second year, when she had to take a two-year hiatus and return to teaching to earn enough money to complete the course.
In 1894, Annie graduated from Dalhousie Medical School as a Doctor of Medicine and a Master of Surgery—the first female to graduate from the school. It would be nearly 50 years before other great medical schools, such as Harvard and Queen’s, would even begin to accept women.
Even though she was the only woman enrolled at the medical school at the time, Annie was not shy or intimidated by the men who surrounded her. She did not hesitate to speak her mind on the status of women, campaign against tobacco and alcohol, and complain about the incessant smoking of her fellow classmates.
Dr. Hamilton continued the crusade against smoking and drinking as a physician in Halifax, joining the only other female doctor in the province at the time, Dr. Maria Angwin, in delivering public lectures on hygiene and preventive medicine. The two were, truly, ahead of their time.
Annie came from a long line of individualists with strong convictions. Her father’s propensity to march to the beat of his own drum, for example, earned him the nickname “Queer Bill.”
She was also regarded as eccentric—partly due to the simple fact that she was both a woman and a doctor, but also due to her outspoken nature, her disregard for fashion and personal appearance, and her practice of making house calls around the north end of Halifax on her bicycle.
Dr. Hamilton was also unusual in that she undertook to learn Chinese. In 1903, she departed Canada for Shanghai, China, where she spent the rest of her career as a medical missionary, working with poor and abused women.
As Dr. Jock Murray notes in his history of Dalhousie Medical School, Noble Goals, Dedicated Doctors, Dr. Hamilton’s letters reveal that she lived in poverty all those years, while caring for others, and quite possibly at the expense of her own health. “When her arthritis and general health worsened, she devoted much of her time to teaching and writing,” he writes. “She was a regular contributor to the Montreal Witness, a publication of the Presbyterian Mission.”
Dr. Annie Hamilton died in Shanghai on December 21, 1941, having returned only once to North America in all those years, to visit her brothers in the United States.
Her legacy lives on through the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (IODE), an international women’s charitable organization, which started a chapter in her name in Brookfield in 1985. In 1990, the IODE Dr. Annie Hamilton Chapter established a scholarship in her name, organized celebrations, and staged a play portraying her extraordinary life.
Dr. Annie Hamilton’s legacy also lives on in the hundreds of women graduates of Dalhousie Medical School who have followed in her footsteps and continue to make outstanding contributions to the health of their communities and communities around the world.
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